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The Importance of “I’m Sorry”

Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” A few years later, Chicago confessed, “It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.”

Those words probably stick in my mind because I can remember all the times those words have stuck in my mouth. It really is hard for me to say, “I’m sorry,” and if sorry isn’t the very hardest word for me to say, it’s certainly near the top of the list.

Why is that? I imagine it’s because I really don’t like to be wrong. Pridefully, I think an apology is more about me than the person to whom I need to apologize. Blinded by my own need to be right and justified, I lose sight of the importance of being in a right relationship. Tragically, my pride and unwillingness to apologize often cause even more injury to the very people I love most of all.

To apologize requires humility and empathy–humility to admit our capability to err and empathy to identify with the other’s hurt. To say, “I’m sorry,” is to affirm that another’s injury–whether intended or not–is more important than our own need to be above reproach. Put simply, it is to love neighbor as self.

But it is hard.

I experienced that first hand today with my own Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. In our morning session of the annual conference, we considered a resolution about our ministry together with LGBTQAI+ brothers and sisters that concluded:

THEREFORE, Be it Resolved that as the Holston Annual Conference we commit ourselves to join hands as one, united through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we work together toward God’s hope for the people of Holston and apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.

As an annual conference, it was hard for us to say, “I’m sorry.” Sorry proved to be the hardest word.

I’m not surprised. Our differences over human sexuality cause strong emotional reactions, and I’m sure that many members of our annual conference found it hard to apologize because they felt it would be admitting to wrongdoing for which they do not feel responsible. Some probably are simply unable to see that any harm has been done, so inextricably and hopelessly are their ideas of sexuality and sinfulness intertwined.

Regardless, the resolution was amended to say that we grieve, rather than apologize for the harm caused.

I can appreciate our collective emotional desire to amend the resolution. Grieving allows us to be compassionate, but it doesn’t require us to feel responsible. Grieving lets us wish that others weren’t hurting without necessarily seeing our own place in causing their pain–even accidentally.

My biggest heartbreak is that we have diminished–with the change of a word–our urgency to bring about reconciliation. We have not demanded of ourselves a resolve to renew and redouble our efforts to do no harm–even accidentally.

Today’s annual conference action has helped me to see myself more clearly, and I hope I’ve taken another step in growth and maturity toward being better able to value my relationships over my pride.

I hope I’ve learned that an apology is not fundamentally about me.  Its primary purpose is not to point out my wrongness or to imply my willful injury of another. Rather, to say “I’m sorry” is to affirm my love for the other, to say that I regret his/her hurt, and that I want our relationship to be restored even more than I want to be blameless and right.

I wish our annual conference had done that through our resolution today.

We are not of one heart and voice in the Holston Annual Conference today. Even in its amended form, I doubt that we adopt the resolution.

Nevertheless, in my heart and in the hearts of many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the resolution remains unamended. We really do “apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.”

No matter how hard it is to say, and even if it’s the hardest word of all, we’re sorry.

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Goodbye Too Soon Connor

“He’s gone.”

Those were the two words my wife Suzanne said when I answered the phone on Wednesday afternoon at 5:18 pm.

Since I was out of town, she had called me about an hour earlier to let me know that our eighteen-year-old nephew Connor was nearing the end of his journey. In that earlier call, she had given me the priceless gift of putting me on speaker so that I could say to him through tears, “I love you. I have since the day you were born.” His answer—the last words he ever spoke to me—was, “I got it.”

As much as I dwell on the hurt of Wednesday’s telephone conversations right now, I absolutely resolve to remember the “hell of a fight” (his mother’s words) that Connor waged to postpone those phone calls as long as possible.

About two years ago, we learned that Ewing sarcoma was the cause of a persistent pain in Connor’s hip, from which the sinister intruder had spread to a shoulder and ribs. Since then, trips to Winston-Salem, scans, tests, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments have become Connor’s new normal.

He was a trooper through thousands of miles of travel and hours of treatment.

The insidious disease took so much from him—his hair, his body mass, his stamina, his junior year of high school—but it didn’t take his courage or resolve.

And so we were able to cry—joyfully—when he rang the bell in that hospital hallway in January 2018, signifying that he had made it to the end of chemotherapy. We cried again in October 2018 when he was crowned Abingdon High School’s homecoming king after being introduced by the stadium announcer as “cancer survivor, Connor Bartz!”

One week later, we cried yet again when we learned that Ewing sarcoma was back. And it was angry.

For the rest of my life, I will refuse to spell that horrible c-word with its vowels. I will spell it cncr, because it is dirty and ugly, like a four-letter word. It takes and takes until there is nothing left to give. In the words of the psalmist, “I hate it with perfect hatred.”

Again, it took—this time, from Connor’s senior year and from his remaining strength and stamina. And again, he gave—as his mom Shea says, “a hell of a fight.”

Round two was fought in Cincinnati, and though the setting was different, his courage was the same. He took on the grind of thousands of miles, hours, scans, needles and treatments, and he gave it all he had.

I emphasize that. In the end, I refuse to say that cncr took Connor’s life. Last Monday, he made the very difficult and courageous decision to discontinue treatment. He came home to face the final round with a horrible disease on his own terms, in his own bed.

He was surrounded by love, as he had been his whole life. In fact, if love alone could cure cncr, it never would’ve had a chance against him. You’ve never seen two more devoted parents or two more devoted sisters than Connor’s.

I’m grateful that his very last awareness was that he was cherished.

Even under the weight of this present grief, we can look beyond how he died to celebrate with a smile how he lived!

He was an artist, by talent, by training, and by temperament. He loved music, and he lived to perform.

Always a percussionist, he marched through life to his own cadence. A great love of his life was marching in the Abingdon High School band, and he would’ve loved the opportunity to march in front of the band as drum major. He dreamed of marching through his young adult summers in a DCI drum corps.

He began playing piano only in the past few years, but he had a real gift for it. His long slender fingers seemed to navigate the keys instinctively. He played with nuance and passion, and no one had to tell him to rehearse because he seemed to have a perfectionist streak and wanted to rehearse until he got it right.

A highlight of his sister Elise’s wedding this summer was Connor’s playing the song to which Elise and their dad Chandler walked down the aisle at the beginning of the service. It was beautiful. The kid simply made beauty on a piano.

Music was a very natural expression of his innate passion.

He was passionate about politics. One of the great injustices of Connor’s life is that he never got to vote in a presidential election. What a shame it is that many don’t even vote, because it would have meant a lot to him.

William Sloane Coffin wrote a book entitled, The Heart Is a Little to the Left. Connor’s was a lot to the left. He was a fan and supporter of Bernie Sanders and was more than a little frustrated with Howard Schultz over the past few weeks because he feared he might siphon votes away from the Democratic presidential nominee.

I believe his political convictions emerged from his natural protective streak, which always seemed visible in his love for his younger sister Abby. He cared deeply for the ones on the margins—the poorest, the most oppressed, the ones least assured of justice, and perhaps most passionately for LGBTQ persons.

He was an idealist. That doesn’t mean he was ideal. He was a teen, and before that he was a child. He complained. He critiqued. He pushed people’s buttons. He was flawed in all the ways that people are flawed. That’s just part of being human.

Nonetheless, he was an idealist, and in his ideal world there would be justice for all, respect for all, and loving affirmation of all. In the ideal world, everyone would practice their musical instruments to perfection. In the ideal world, there would be no terminal illnesses.

But here in the real world, in the closing rounds of the fight for his life, Connor found comfort in a description of an ideal world to come. His favorite image from scripture over the past few days was from Revelation 21:3-4, in which the voice from heaven’s throne says, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Eternal God of heaven, please hold Connor now that we cannot.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past couple of days. When Connor was younger, he was fascinated by the HMS Titanic. His parents took him to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and I believe he even had a Titanic theme birthday party a few years ago.

Do you know what fascinates us about the Titanic? We remember it because the voyage ended before it should have. The story is tragic because it ended too soon.

That’s what strikes me most right now about my nephew Connor. He will be forever eighteen in our memories. We will grieve all the things that he never got to do. We will always have the sense that his story among us simply ended too soon.

Too soon indeed.

Connor, I will always be proud and grateful to have been your uncle.

I will always cherish our parting hug on Saturday night.

I will always be thankful that I got that one last chance on Wednesday to tell you on the telephone what I will simply say again here:

I love you. I have since the day you were born.

And I always will.


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Weeping for the Children

As I ironed a shirt this morning, making my typical preparations for a typical day of work, a heartbreakingly and increasingly all-too-typical news story caught my attention and gripped my heart.

Shots had been fired. Life had been lost.

Cell phone videos replayed the struggle among two Baton Rouge police officers and a civilian suspect. Broadcast journalists, experts, protesters, and family members debated whether the shooting was justifiable. They all agreed that it was tragic, and I agreed with them.

The next scene underscored and emphasized the tragedy for me. As his mother spoke to the media, fifteen year old Cameron Sterling sobbed and cried out, “I want daddy!”

There’s the tragedy.

See, regardless of our arguments over justifiability of shootings, availability of guns, culpability of suspects, avoidability of responsibility, or any other –bility we can imagine, sudden and violent deaths are tragic because they strip children of their parents, parents of their children, loved ones of their loved ones . . .

Perhaps Cameron Sterling spoke for all of us when those three words rushed and gushed up from his heart–“I want daddy!” When violence of any kind wins, we all lose something, maybe even some part of ourselves.

Though my heart and spirit were heavier, my typical morning progressed until my wife Suzanne called my attention to the atypical–tragedy had forced its way into our community. Overnight, there had been an “active shooter” even here in Bristol, just minutes from our home. As the story unfolded through the morning, we were numbed by the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The shooting victim who lost her life was our age. Her children are about the same ages as our children. Her son played on the same soccer team as our son.

Just weeks ago, we sat on the sideline with her, cheering for our children. This morning, as she made her typical preparations for a typical day of work, her beautiful life ended tragically, senselessly, violently and suddenly. At this very moment, I can imagine her son, Chauncey, our team’s goalie, crying out through his own sobs, “I want momma!”

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tragic violence has come so close to our children’s hearts. On July 27, 2008, Chloe Chavez sat with her family when a gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Before he was subdued, the shooter had injured Chloe’s mother, grandfather, and great uncle and had killed a family friend who was like a great aunt to her. Only a month earlier, Chloe and my daughter Grace had finished their Kindergarten year together in the same classroom. Earlier in the year, we had enjoyed meeting all those nice people at Chloe’s birthday party.

When Suzanne and I learned that she had sat there among her family members–splattered in their blood as they were wounded and killed–we could imagine six year old Chloe’s screams . . .

Today, as young Chauncey and his family cry out in grief, I remember the familiar words of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, “How long, O Lord?”

But as a follower (and a father), the primary scripture-image that comes to my heart and mind is, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the image is of Rachel in her tomb in Ramah, crying for the children of Israel as they are taken away into exile. In Matthew 2:18, the gospel writer suggests that Herod’s massacre of infants is the reason for Rachel’s weeping.

Today, whether from her tomb in Ramah or from her place in God’s eternal presence, I believe with all my heart that our ancestor Rachel weeps for her children like Chloe, Cameron, and today, Chauncey, as they cry out primally for the ones they’ve loved and lost.

Our hearts weep with yours Rachel. We weep with you.

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Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Church

They’re inevitable conversations in the life of a pastor. You round the corner in the grocery store and encounter a church member who hasn’t participated in worship services or other ministries for several months, and he or she feels compelled to tell you why. You encounter the stranger in the waiting room or on the airplane, and the moment you reveal you’re a pastor, he or she rehearses the litany of reasons not to be part of a congregation. Let me be clear–I’m not talking about conversations with people who have physical limitations and yearn for the fellowship they miss in their church families. Instead, these are the stories of people who could be, but for some reason aren’t active in church.

For years, I felt a little awkward in these conversations, afraid that perhaps I had given the other person some reason to feel guilty or defensive. I’d say something innocent and casual like, “We’ll be there when you get back,” or “We’re open every Sunday.” Now, however, I relish these opportunities to share my perspective and compassion. Across the last fifteen years or so, I’ve heard a lot of reasons to stay away from church. You may have heard and attempted to address some of them. You may have offered some of them yourself. Regardless, I invite you to wrestle with them now.

I’ll start with some of the reasons church members (or former church members) often give when they haven’t participated in a while.

10.  We can’t be there because we have to . . .
I hear this one very often, especially among families with active children, and they almost always use the word “can’t” and the phrase “have to” in their explanation, often because of some kind of sport or extracurricular activity. We can’t be there because we have to be at a soccer, swim, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, gymnastics, etc. tournament. Let’s tell the truth–when we say “can’t,” don’t we really mean “choose not to,” as in, “We choose not to be there because of the aforementioned athletic event.” Both as a former student athlete and as a father of four, I understand the lure. Nevertheless, we parents communicate value and priority by our actions that speak more loudly than words. At worst, we’re subtly telling our kids that sports are more important than faith–that games are more important than God. At best, we’re telling them that God can wait until the next season, year, or phase of life. This one is big, and it deserves greater attention, so I think I’ll address it more fully in a later blog post.

9.  Sunday’s the only day we get to be together as a family.
Obviously, this one’s very similar to number 10, and again, people almost always use the phrase “get to,” as if we’re passive victims of our schedules. A more honest version of this one is, “We’ve chosen to overschedule our lives, and so we choose sleep or time at home over worship on Sunday mornings.” Again, we parents communicate value by the choices we make, and we’re subtly telling our families that all of that busy-ness of the other six days is more important than our families’ lives of worship and devotion on Sunday morning.

What priority can we expect our children to give their lives of faith if we parents communicate to them by our actions that speak more loudly than words that all the other things that occupy our time come first, and worship is for those Sunday mornings that we don’t happen to be busy or resting? On the other hand, what better way is there to spend “quality time” as a family than in a shared life of faith? Besides, wouldn’t we rather spend eternity together as a family than risk another eternal outcome because faith wasn’t one of the most important parts of our family life?

8.  My kids just don’t like to go to church.
This comment is often followed by some statement about not wanting to “shove religion down their throats.” Hardly ever, however, do we parents have conversations with each other about whether sending our kids to school or taking them to doctor and dentist appointments is shoving education and healthcare down their throats, despite the fact that our kids don’t particularly like those experiences either. I often wonder where we Christians got the idea that we and our children are supposed to enjoy everything about following Jesus, who–by the way–told us that we should deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow him each day. Self-denial doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught and learned. Here’s an opportunity for us to teach our kids that it’s not about us and our enjoyment. It’s about devotion to the one who loved us enough to die for us.

7.  I don’t like the . . . 
The end of this sentence varies dramatically, according to a person’s individual preferences–and I use the word “preferences” intentionally, simply because I’m convinced so many of our dislikes are matters of preference rather than principle. For many, it’s the preacher. For many others, it’s the music. For still others, it’s the time or style of the worship service. It can be almost anything, including the sanctuary, the color scheme, the translation of scripture most commonly used, the decision making process of the governing board or council, the parking lot, the denomination’s stance on one issue or another . . . and the list goes on and on. 

Nevertheless, if I may be blunt, Jesus never promised that we would like everything about his church. In fact, after he tells Peter that he will build his church upon this rock, Jesus only mentions the church once, and that is to tell us what to do when we don’t get along with each other! Somehow, however, we have gotten the idea that our participation in a community of faith should often or always bring us enjoyment, and we’re disillusioned when it doesn’t.

I have a running joke with some young people in our congregation. When they tell me what they don’t like, they expect me to reply with something like, “I doubt Jesus liked hanging on the cross, but he did it because he loves you.” Regardless of age, one lesson we continually need to learn is that our life together in a community of faith is (or should be) less about our likes and enjoyment than about seeking to love and serve Jesus and others.

Especially with our culture’s emphasis upon the rights of the individual, we tend to wonder what’s in it for us. And to be honest, the church has done little to discourage that perspective. Swept up in the prevailing consumer culture, we’ve marketed ourselves to the public, persuading people to become part of our fellowship because of all we have to offer to them or to their families. Like American Express, we’ve led people to believe “membership has its privileges.” But the church doesn’t exist to please its members. To the contrary,  the church exists to engage its members in self-denying service in Jesus’ name, like it or not.

6.  I’m not being fed at church.
I do not take this lightly. As pastor, two of my chief responsibilities are preaching and teaching, and like most pastors, I take those responsibilities very seriously. Because Jesus asks commands us to love God with heart, mind, soul, & strength, it’s crucial that the church engage heart, mind, and soul with its ministries. If people aren’t being offered good spiritual food, the church should explore that very prayerfully.

However, my friend, colleague, and fellow pastor Alan Gray recently gave me a different way of looking at this problem. Who needs to be fed  by another? Usually an infant. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” Maybe part of the problem is that we Christians aren’t growing up. There’s a good chance we’re starving. Imagine eating only one meal per week. We hardly consider that healthy. Similarly, if we’re not nourishing our faith between Sundays or apart from our participation in the life of the church, there’s probably no way we can be adequately fed in one hour doses on Sundays. The significant difference between our being offered food and being fed is the extent to which we’re willing to bear some responsibility for our own nourishment.

5.  Something/someone in church really hurt me.
I feel very deep empathy with and sympathy for anyone who feels this way. Because the church is a community of believers built upon love for God and neighbors, it is particularly painful to feel wounded by a congregation or one of its members. It is very difficult to return to that fellowship and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to subject yourself to the memory of pain or of the possibility of additional pain.

As we all know, some people have been deeply wounded by sexual predators who have violated the sacred trust that binds us together in the Body of Christ. I can’t imagine the depth of their pain. In their shoes, I don’t know that I would or even could return. We Christians need to dwell on their pain and let it inspire us to keep the church a sanctuary, a holy haven from the violence of the world around us. Trust is slowly gained and quickly lost. The church should be in the constant business of building and gaining trust by demonstrating love and mercy.

On the other hand, there are many who shun the church because of hurt feelings born of differences of opinion, poor communication, and a million other causes. Though we must take their pain very seriously too, we also need to hear Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 18:21-22 about persistence in forgiveness. Apparently, Jesus never expected us to coexist in his church without occasional friction. Many of us remember singing, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is people!” It’s true that I am the church, you are the church, and we are the church together. We’re human and broken, and we’re going to hurt each other at times. Rather than taking the path of least resistance and walking away from church, Jesus asks us to do the hard work of forgiving and reconciling.

Thus ends the part of this post that we might call preaching to the choir. The preceding are some of the most common reasons “church people” give for staying away from church, but many people have never been committed to or even approached the church at all, and here are some of the reasons they’ve offered me across the years.

4.  Church people are such hypocrites.
I usually respond to this one by saying, “Well, we can always use one more, so come join us!” I’m not really joking when I say that. Of course we’re hypocrites. We see splinters in others’ eyes and fail to see the planks in our own. We complain about others’ sins and rationalize our own. We fail to practice what we preach. We need grace. There’s a whole lot of truth in the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I do, however, understand some of the prevailing frustrations with and critiques of the church. It’s sadly true that we Christians can be most vocal about what we’re against. We can be perceived as people who are “anti-” in a variety of ways. At our very core, however, we Christians are (or should be) a bunch of people trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of him, we’re trying to show his love to others by loving and serving our neighbors, and that’s not a bad mission. I dare you to come join us.

3.  I watch a TV preacher(-s), and that’s my church.
This reason for staying away rests on the assumption that the church’s primary (or only) mission is to provide uplifting preaching. But the church strives to be–and is–so much more than a weekly sermon. The word translated as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “the assembly,” or “the gathering.” Church necessarily includes involvement in a community.

Here’s another way in which the society’s emphasis upon the individual affects the individual’s view of faith. Our culture really seems to believe that faith is a matter between an individual and God, private from and exclusive of any involvement with other people. However, that’s a completely foreign notion in the Bible with its emphasis upon community, covenant, kingdom, and church.

Let me be clear–I’m so glad that churches and preachers broadcast their services and sermons. We need that little oasis of holiness in the midst of more typical secular programming on television. These broadcasts are very meaningful in many Christians’ devotional lives–especially, it seems, for older adults who are less mobile than they once were. But no television broadcast can replace participation in the ekklesia, the community of believers. The church is people.

2.  I can be just as close to God . . . 
There are probably thousands of ways to end this sentence. You’ve probably heard several of them. I can be just as close to God in the mountains, on the farm, at the lake, on the golf course, on my porch, in the garden, at the beach . . . and the list goes on and on.  I’ll grant you this one. You probably can be just as close to God at other places and in other settings as you can in a sanctuary among other people. But you can’t participate in the body of Christ on your own.

Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” That can only be done in community! Again though, our culture emphasizes the individual, and we tend to think of our faith as a private matter between ourselves and God, but God created us to live in community. Jesus didn’t call disciples to follow him individually. He called them to follow him collectively.

1.  I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person.
This claim is as old as the church. Literally. Influenced by Greek philosophers of earlier centuries, some first century Christians tried to distinguish between the ideal and the actual. Schools of thought like Docetism rejected the idea that Jesus actually suffered death, because they believed to admit Jesus’ incarnation was to admit his flaws. For them, the spiritual was ideal, and the physical was necessarily flawed. Similarly, I often encounter people who claim to be spiritual rather than religious because they seem to think that religion is almost necessarily corrupt, while spiritual enlightenment is more perfect and sublime.

I think they’re on to something, but I think they’re missing something. The church is flawed, but it’s the Body of Christ in the world. The church really should be less about religious doctrine and more about spirit-filled movement, but it’s the instrument Jesus chose to share his love and grace with the world. By standing apart from the church, a spiritual person may position himself or herself above the church’s corruption, but at the same time, he/she also chooses to stand beyond its grace, fellowship, and maybe most importantly, accountability.

Your spiritual sensitivity is a gift from God. Jesus says so in John’s gospel–“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But Paul points out in several of his letters that your spiritual gift is for the sake of the Body of Christ in the world. Rather than standing apart from the church because of its flaws, come refine the church by sharing your God-given gifts and strengths. You might find  a surprising sense of fulfillment as you take your place within this Body of Christ animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

1b.  I don’t believe in God.
Well, God believes in you, and the church exists for you. Our love, our prayers, and everything we do is for you. At least it should be.

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God Bless Dr. Griffin

Almost twenty-five years ago in August 1989, I sat in a cramped basement office on the campus of Emory & Henry College meeting with my assigned faculty advisor to select courses for my first semester. Honestly, I expected the meeting to be a mere formality because I had already met with the beloved registrar Al Mitchell earlier in the summer to choose classes. Since I would be playing football and basketball and because I needed to maintain a high grade point average to keep my academic scholarship, Mr. Mitchell and I had put together an academic schedule that would help me ease into my college experience.

But in that small office on the day before registration, the man who claimed some of his students called him Dr. Death had other ideas. As he held my high school transcript in one hand and the course schedule I had arranged with Mr. Mitchell in the other, he asked, “Jonas, are you afraid of college?” He went on to tell me that I owed it to myself and to the academic community around me to embark upon a more challenging first semester, and therefore, he unceremoniously ripped up my proposed schedule, and we started over. I can’t say that my first impression of him was overwhelmingly positive.

As it turned out, however, he did me a great service. The course schedule that he helped me to assemble included “The History of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy” with Dr. Ed Damer. Left to my own preferences, I probably would not have chosen that one, but by the end of the semester, I discovered that I was a lover of wisdom–literally a philosopher–and because of my experience in that class, I went on to major in philosophy.

My first semester also included Psychology 101 with Dr. Steve Hopp, who changed my life by changing my view of learning and education. I’ve always been blessed with a pretty good memory, and I had discovered that memorization can be very helpful in test preparation. In psychology lab one afternoon, I was committing course material to memory when Dr. Hopp said these transformative words, “Don’t just memorize; conceptualize.” I’ve been trying ever since to conceptualize, to learn in context, to see the bigger pictures, the nuances, and the intricacies. Anyone can memorize. Not everyone can really learn. I might have missed that lesson if I had kept my “ease into college” schedule.

One of the beauties of a small college is that it is less institution than community. So, after we completely remodeled my schedule as advisor and advisee, I began to get to know Dr. Terry Griffin in our new relationship as professor and student. He was my instructor for the first semester of freshman Western Tradition, and I very quickly realized that he was unlike any teacher I had encountered. He often smoked cigarettes (even in class!), always with the plastic filter attachment. His sense of humor was dry, and I had the distinct impression that he enjoyed coming across as having a sense of impropriety bordering on irreverence.

Our faculty emphasized the importance of gender inclusivity and required us to write “he or she” or “s/he” or “his or her”  in cases in which gender was unspecified. One day in class Dr. Griffin suggested that we had not taken gender inclusivity far enough because in our effort to include both masculine and feminine, we had completely ignored neuter. So, he told us that it would be perfectly appropriate in his class to use a combination pronoun made up of the “s” from the feminine she, the “h” from the masculine he, and the neuter pronoun “it.” Of course, the spelling of his newly fabricated, completely inclusive pronoun was “shit.” I can still hear Dr. Griffin saying, “What?! We don’t want neutered people to feel left out!” My appreciation and admiration for him grew throughout that first semester because he was so uninhibited.  In so many ways, he was what I could not be.

Mainly because I had enjoyed his Western Tradition class so much, I decided to fulfill my foreign language requirement in his German classes. He did not disappoint. His wry sense of humor, his exaggerated pronunciation and enunciation of those guttural German sounds, and so many other uniquely Griffinesque touches made his classes equally educational and entertaining.

One day in class he furrowed his brow as he looked at me and said, “Jonas,” (because he never called me anything but Jonas), “did I teach another Jonas here a few years ago?” When I told him that my dad had taken German with him a generation earlier, he frowned and nodded. In our next class session, he very brusquely said, “Jonas, there’s only one explanation–you’re adopted.” I made As in Dr. Griffin’s class. Apparently, my dad didn’t.

The unwritten rules of social convention never seemed to faze him. If he thought it, he felt perfectly free to say it. As we studied German grammar in comparison and contrast to English grammar, he expressed his frustration that so many rules of grammar seem so arbitrary. He asked, “Who decided that sentences can’t end with prepositions?” Apparently, this was a long held and deeply held frustration because he told us about the argument he had with one of his elementary school teachers who had penalized him for ending sentences with prepositions. In protest, he claimed to have set the world record by ending a sentence in his next composition with five consecutive prepositions. In his story, a little boy asked his mother at bedtime, “Why did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” There they are. Five prepositions.

As we discussed the German language within the context of German culture, he said, “Some Germans can be so arrogant.” He went on to tell us about an experience he had one summer at a foreign language conference when he shared a meal with several professors, including one from a German university–perhaps Heidelberg? Apparently, this native of Germany made some disparaging remarks about the United States, suggesting that our society was less refined and sophisticated than German culture. By his own account, Dr. Griffin stood, looked straight at the professor from Germany, and said, “We kicked your asses in back in 1918, we did it again in ’45, and by God we can still do it today!”

Vintage Griffin–simultaneously educating and entertaining, so opinionated yet so apparently unconcerned with others’ opinions of him. Whenever I talk about my Emory & Henry years, I almost always sprinkle in a Griffin story or two. In fact, during the Holston Annual Conference back in June, I spent a couple of hours with a few other E&H alumni as we tried to outdo each other’s Griffin stories. We laughed until we cried . . .

Yesterday, I just cried.

Murder is always tragic. Domestic violence and abuse are always tragic, wherever they occur. Yesterday’s news seemed particularly tragic to me because it was so close to home. It was heartbreaking enough that the tragedy unfolded in nearby Glade Spring. It took my breath away to read that shooting and murder broke out in the home of Dr. Terry Griffin early yesterday morning.

It seems that Dr. Griffin’s son-in-law broke into the home and shot Dr. Griffin, his wife, his daughter, and grandson. Apparently, the shooter then took his own life. So, I understand that Dr. Griffin is recovering from his physical wounds in a hospital room. I don’t know how he will recover from the emotional and spiritual wounds of having his home invaded and of losing his wife, daughter, and grandson.

A couple of decades ago on the Emory & Henry campus, I saw Dr. Griffin as a mischievous iconoclast. With his gruff exterior and his intellectual bravado, I certainly respected him, and I very well may have envied him, but back then I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which I would feel pity for him.

Today, I just want to hug him. God bless you Dr. Griffin. Gott segne dich.


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